Cleopas Nsibande was born into a family of seven on 25 March 1928, in Nyibe Location near Ermelo in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa.
He attended school in Johannesburg. After school he started working at Amato Textiles mills in the early 1950's. It was during this period that he became involved with the trade unions. While working at Amato Textiles, he advocated for the protection of workers and for a living wage. He influenced other workers to fight for these rights and led a strike which was known as the fight for "Upondo ngeLanga" (Pound-a-day).
At the time the strike was conducted, it was deemed illegal because the Apartheid regime did not recognize black unions. The management at Amato informed the police of the strike. The police responded by beating the demonstrators, dispersing them. Nsibande sustained a cut in the forehead during the beatings.
From then on, Cleopas Nsibande became a prominent trade unionist and was later a founding member of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). He was also one of the key campaigners who mobilised people for the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955. For this contribution, he was arrested and charged in the historical 1956 Treason Trial together with 155 leaders including former African National Congress ANC presidents; Chief Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo.
In 1958, he was one of the leaders of the ‘Potato boycott’ in Southern Transvaal. This campaign was engineered by Gert Sibanda who was Chairperson in the Eastern Transvaal. It was a response to the discovery of graves of some past offenders who were sold to farmers as cheap labour and slave conditions on potato farms. A large number of the graves were found in Bethal.
After the banning of the (ANC) in 1960, Nsibande continued to do underground work and he kept in contact with the exiled leadership. He was a confidant of the then ANC president Oliver Tambo. Of paramount importance, was the role he played in opening the way for the movement to set up structures in Swaziland in the 1960s. In 1973 he was detained while in Swaziland, and later deported to South Africa.
After the un-banning of the ANC in 1990, Cleopas Nsibande continued to work for the ANC even though he was getting on in years. He was still willing and ready to undertake any tasks assigned to him by the movement and was influential in activities such as the building of the ANC in Ekurhuleni and Gauteng.
According to a statement released by the Gauteng Provincial Government, Mr Nsibande was a tireless fighter for a democratic South Africa free from all forms of discrimination and exploitation.
Nsibande died on 26 December 2008 at the age of 80 at Glenwood Hospital in Benoni and was buried at Tamboville Cemetery in Watville. The office of the president afforded the funeral of Cleopas Nsibande the status and respect of an official state funeral in recognition of his immense contribution to the liberation of the country and the acquisition of democracy. Flags in Gauteng province flew at half-mast on the day of his burial.
The struggle veteran is survived by wife, Sarah, four children - Thembi, Justice, Thato and Sibongile, eleven grandchildren and two great grandchildren.